Infiniti FX 35 AWD Review

Last week, my wife and kids and I went out for a burger. I hadn't eaten all day, so I was hungry and probably not thinking really clearly. I forgot to ask for cheese, and when the burger landed in front of me, I didn't even bother to put the condiments on...I just picked it up and ate.

Best thing I'd ever done. I could actually taste the burger. It was terrific...the meat itself, the seasonings, the smoky grill taste.

Afterwards, we walked outside and got in the Infiniti FX35. And I wished I could have ordered it plain. Somewhere under all the tech is probably a really good car.

The FX35 is the less-outrageous sister to the FX50 that I reviewed in August, packing only 303 horsepower (only?) through a seven-speed automatic transmission, and returning a reasonable (for this kind of vehicle) EPA estimated 16 city/21 highway miles per gallon.

It's rarely a good sign when the owner's manual for a car doesn't fit in the glove compartment. Infiniti had to create a special space for it on the inside right rear wheel well back in the cargo area. Stretch before you try to lift it. Some mental exercise (a crossword, maybe?) may be a good idea before you tackle all the acronyms within: IBA, FCW, LDW, LDP, DCA, AABS, VDC, TCS, BA, TPMS.....

Now, a lot of that tech is good stuff...but somehow, in the FX, it's obtrusive.

The base FX35 AWD is $42,350 and comes with everything you could want. But the tester took it up several notches. First, the Premium Package ($2,350), adding climate-controlled front seats, Bluetooth (that should have been standard) iPod interface, memory driver's seat, power tilt/telescope steering column, paddle shifters, quilted-leather seats, aluminum roof rails (bad for aerodynamics and mileage) and a cargo cover and cargo net.

But wait...there's more:

The Navigation Package ($2,850), with navigation (um..yeah), Around View Monitor (four cameras placed strategically around the car as a parking aid), voice recognition for audio and navigation, XM NavTraffic, a 9.3 gig hard-drive music jukebox, a single CD slot in the dash, and front and rear sonar.

And then...

The Technology Package (you mean we didn't have any already?), in which $2,900 buys Intelligent Brake Assist with Front Collision Warning System (keep your eyes on the road and push harder on the brake), Lane Departure Prevention System (in which the cameras on the sides of the car, underneath the outside mirrors, look for the white lines on the road and sound alarms if you get too close to them), Lane Departure Warning System (which warns you when cars are too close....like, oh, at any stop light)...pre-crash seat belts, intelligent cruise control with Distance Control Assist (always fun on a left curve when you're in the left lane and a semi 10 car-lengths ahead in the right lane begins the curve and your car thinks it's in your lane and begins braking hard) and rain-sensing front windshield wipers.

If you've lost count, the price is now $51,315...$9,000 more than when we started and only $5,000 less than the base price of an FX50, which has all but the Technology Package standard.

Like I said, somewhere under all that is probably a really good car. I'd like the next one plain, please.

Nissan Sentra 2.0 S Review

Reuglar readers of TireKicker will know that while I appreciate the awesome (see TireKicker's Top Ten cars), I also have a soft spot for simplicity.

After two and a half decades of being merely inexpensive, the new Nissan Sentra has achieved desirable elegant simplicity.

The S is the mid-level Sentra, delivering a 140 horsepower 2-liter four cylinder engine with continuously variable transmission (CVT), anti-lock brakes, 16-inch wheels, air conditioning, power windows, power door locks, a six-speaker AM/FM/CD audio system and more for $16,960.

The test car had three options...splash guards ($140), the Convenience Plus package (Bluetooth, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, overhead CD holder, Divide-N-Hide trunk system, cargo net and keyless entry and ignition for $850) and floor mats and a trunk mat ($165). Total price with delivery: $18,740.

The Sentra also comes with five-star frontal crash ratings for both driver and passenger and EPA mileage estimates of 25 city/33 highway.

All the good stuff, no needless fluff, and a reasonable price. So what's it like to drive?

Well, 140 horsepower isn't going to set the world on fire, but it's more than adequate...helped along by the CVT (so far, Nissan builds the best CVTs).

The styling is a matter of taste, and while there are prettier cars out there, that seemingly too-high roofline pays off big when you get inside.

The addition of the Versa at the bottom of the Nissan product line has freed up room for Sentra to grow. It's now a very good small sedan and very much worth a test drive.


Kia Borrego EX 4X4 Review

Time waits for no one. It also waits for no vehicle.

The Kia Borrego could have knocked the Ford Explorer a few rungs further down the sales charts (a process begun by the Firestone tire blowout/rollover scandal early in the decade)if it had come to market when the new Explorer did in 2006.

But this is model year 2009...and even before gas prices and the rest of the economy decided to see if we were paying attention, car-based crossovers had already started eating truck-based SUVs lunches.

That's probably good for the evolution of the automobile, the environment and several other things, but it's a shame for Kia, because (especially with the current uncertainty) a lot fewer people will even look at, much less test drive, the Borrego.

Those that do will be impressed and quite possibly amazed. Korean cars have been improving at a rapid rate, but always felt, on some level, like they were one generation back of state-of-the-art. Sometimes it was the plastics used, sometimes the shade of green of the instrument lighting...something was always not quite right...leaving the lower price and killer (10 years/100,000 mile) warranty to close the deal.

Not the Borrego. This time, Kia hit the target dead center. This is an SUV every bit as good as and quite possibly better than its direct competition. And the price ($29,995 base for the EX 4X4) and warranty become icing rather than inducement.

For the base price, you get a 3.8 liter, 24 valve DOHC V6 coupled to a 5-speed automatic transmission, four-wheel drive, Anti-lock brakes, dual-zone climate control, power windows, locks and heated outside mirrors, an AM/FM/CD/MP3 audio system with 3 months of Sirius Satellite Radio for free, USB and auxiliary jacks for iPod, and a chunk more that would be great options...but they're standard.

The tester added 18-inch chrome wheels (replacing the stock 17s for $750), a premium package ($1,800 for a sunroof, an upgraded Infinity 10-speaker audio system), rear climate control and running boards, a navigation system ($1,500), and a luxury package ($1,500 buying leather seat trim, heated front seats, a power tilt and telescoping steering column and memory seats, mirrors and steering column). With handling costs, the total was $36,295. Any place else, that's an easy $40,000 worth of SUV.

Given the size and luxury, the EPA's estimated 16 city/21 highway isn't bad, either.

But the target has moved. There's still a market for this kind of vehicle (assuming there's actually a market for vehicles at all today)...but not what it was. Three years ago, the Borrego could have been a home-run. Now, through no fault of its own, Kia's got a solid double...and needs to swing this strongly with their next product. Their slogan "The Power To Surprise" has now led to expectations to be met.


Cadillac Escalade Hybrid Review

The temptation was huge to simply let the picture above be the review: A Cadillac Escalade, the ultimate Sumo-class luxury SUV, with the word "H Y B R I D" emblazoned on it.

That would be the easy way out, though. The Cadillac Escalade Hybrid deserves...heck, demands...some serious discussion. After all, the mass perception of hybrids revolves around cars like the Toyota Prius...small fuel-sipping machines that, while luxurious by the standards of even a decade ago, make a show of shunning wretched excess.

Sure, the movement has been to larger hybrid vehicles of late...from the Ford Escape Hybrid to the Nissan Altima Hybrid, but those haven't fully penetrated the public consciousness yet.

And yes, the Lexus LH600 L hybrid sedan, at $105,000 plus, is somewhat more of an apparent contradiction than the Escalade Hybrid, but it's largely invisible...looking like its gasoline-powered variant, the LS460, it slips through traffic unnoticed.

Not the Cadillac Escalade Hybrid. There are NINE...count them...NINE exterior badges proclaiming the word "H Y B R I D", prompting the inevitable questions from fellow motorists, who then have to deal with the answers:

A base price of $72,865.

A curb weight of 5,717 pounds.

403 horsepower from a 6.2 liter V8 gasoline engine.

0 to 60 in 6.8 seconds.

So what could the payoff possibly be? Where's the hybrid come in here? With an EPA estimated 20 miles per gallon city, 21 highway.

Now those aren't earth-shaking numbers, certainly not compared to misers like the Prius (which gets 48 city/45 highway). It misses the TireKicker Top Ten Fuel Saver list. But it is a 50% improvement in mileage compared to the gasoline-powered Escalade, which beats the 38% improvement GM's engineers got with the Chevrolet Tahoe Hybrid (although the Chevy's raw mpg numbers are higher).

So, if you have to have a Cadillac Escalade, the Hybrid has its upside in gas savings. Which leaves the question: Do you? Have to have one, I mean?

Well, "have to" is a loaded phrase. As I walked around the Escalade Hybrid when it arrived, looking over the GM PR materials, I was thinking about what a tough sell this particular vehicle was likely to be.

Then I spent a week driving it.

Lord help me, I want one. If GM wants a "yes" vote on bailout money, they just need to send 100 of these to the Senate wing of the United States Capitol with notes saying "Return whenever...or not." The Escalade is luxury and refinement taken to a degree where I'd argue that it's the best car to wear a Cadillac badge in at least 40 years. It imparts a sense that you're not just driving any old thing...you're driving a Cadillac. And covering 150 miles while barely seeing the fuel gague needle move off "F" is a bonus.

Getting 20 miles per gallon in the city out of a three-ton, 400-plus horsepower SUV is something that I would have classified as "the dog riding the bicycle". It doesn't matter how well he does it, it's just that it can be done at all. But the Escalade blows that away by being a really great car that makes you want it. And if that's not proof that American car-building ingenuity is alive and well, then I don't know what is.

Mazda RX-8 Grand Touring Review

Time, development and refinement. Those are three things that can improve a car, and the Mazda RX-8 has benefited from all three.

Like most people, I was wowed by the look of the RX-8 when it first came out a few years back (making its screen debut in the "X-Men 2" movie)...but a bit underwhelmed when getting to know it in person. The suicide-style four door arrangement looked cool in photos, but was awkward in person. The body's proportions never looked just right from any given angle...and, frankly, it wasn't that fun to drive.

Well, the doors are still dorky (not much can save that but a restyling and possibly a return to two doors), but a bump up to 18 inch wheels has solved the proportion issue handsomely, and the engineers have obviously been working overtime to make the Zoom-Zoom a little zoomier.

The Grand Touring level comes standard with a six-speed manual transmission coupled to a 1.3 liter rotary engine making 232 horsepower. Not a monster, but more than adequate. You also get a sport-tuned suspension (which gets a lot of credit for the increased fun factor), high-performance tires (ditto), and nice stuff like a power moonroof, air conditioning, a 300-watt Bose audio AM/FM/6-disc CD changer audio system, Bluetooth, leather-trimmed seats, and a bunch more for a base price of $31,670.

The tester had only two options, Sirius Satellite Radio ($430)and a navigation system ($2,000), taking the price with delivery charges to just under $35,000, and making it prime competition for say, a loaded Nissan 350Z.

Mileage has never been a rotary engine strong suit...the RX-8's EPA estimate is 16 city/22 highway...which is midsize SUV mileage these days. Props, though for stellar safety ratings...four stars for the driver in a frontal crash, five for the passenger, as well as four stars for front seat and rear seat protection in a side crash and five stars for rollover.

The RX-8 isn't an instant must-have, but Mazda's been working hard to make sure that if you give it a chance, it will make a better than average case for itself.


Audi R8 Review

It's the question professional TireKickers (aka automotive journalists) get asked all the time:

"What's your favorite car?"

For 11 years, I had to answer the question with a question. What type? I mean, the Rolls-Royce Phantom is a great car...but so's the Honda Accord LX. I've never met a Porsche 911 I didn't like...but on the other hand, if you've got two or more kids and strollers, Pak-And-Plays and trips to Costco are part of your life, Chevy Suburbans just plain rock.

All those things still apply. But if you gave me a Venti Sodium Pentathol (half-caf, please) right now, I'd fess up:

The Audi R8 is my favorite car.

There have been a lot of cars over the years that I wouldn't have minded if the manufacturer forgot to come get at the end of a week's worth of testing. The R8 had me praying for mass amnesia at Audi of America.

Yes, this is the car I referred to in my review of the Audi A5/S5 as the car I'd look over my shoulder at after I parked it. Not that I'd ever walk very far. The R8 is a people magnet. Car people, non-car people...doesn't matter. They all want to know what it is...and most are shocked to hear it's an Audi (they were guessing Ferrari or Lamborghini).

The cockpit is tight, but supercar cockpits are, and the R8 is by far the most comfortable and user-friendly of the bunch. Fire up the engine and you know you've got something special. A 4.2 liter V8 with 420 horsepower gets the R8 from zero to 60 in 4.4 seconds. It does the quarter-mile in 12.7 seconds. Top speed is 187 (electronically limited because the tires couldn't take more). It handles like a slot car.

Gas mileage (are we really talking about this?) is amazingly good for this type of car...an EPA estimated 13 city/18 highway for the R-tronic manumatic...12 city/19 highway for the stock stick. With a 23.8 gallon tank, that means 425-plus miles worth of cruising range. Breakfast in Boston? Lunch in Laguna Beach? Dinner in Denver? Getting there in the R8 would be more than half the fun.

If you can find a dealer willing to sell you one at list price, figure on $125,000, give or take. It is so worth it.


Ford F-150 Harley Davidson Review

Upside to the current downturn in car (and especially truck) sales: There are still vehicles on dealer lots that should have been gone a long time ago...and you can get screaming deals.

Case in point: The 2008 Ford F-150 Harley Davidson. It's the most powerful factory-built F-series truck ever. Just how powerful is that? 450 horsepower and 500 lbs/ft of torque from a 5.4 liter supercharged V8 engine. And all that's wrapped in some of the baddest-looking truck on the road. What do you get? Let's just quote liberally from the Ford press release:

Unique chrome billet grille and lower front valance.

Body color bumper, mirror caps, ground effects, door and tailgate handles.

Blacked-out headlamps with black bulb shield and dark tinted, smoked-out taillamps.

Windshield with Bar & Shield logo dot pattern and Alliance logo.

New 22-inch polished forged-aluminum wheels with the Bar & Shield logo on center caps.

Forged aluminum "105th Anniversary Harley-Davidson F-150" Medallions on the fenders and tailgate.

Chrome dual exhaust tips and tie-down hooks.

Rubber bed mat with HARLEY-DAVIDSON Bar & Shield logo.

The Vintage Copper and Black color scheme is carried onto the interior that features Black/Dusted Copper leather-trimmed front captain's chairs and rear bench seat with die-cast Bar & Shield logos embedded in the leather. Other interior features are:

Two-tone leather shifter, console lid and steering wheel.

High-gloss piano black floor console and center stack with the Bar & Shield logos, as well as chrome vent rings and unique instrument cluster.

Serialized nickel plate displaying the production VIN and number.

Brushed stainless steel pedals.

The center stack, matching door-trim panels and lower part of the windshield feature numerous miniature Bar & Shield logos. In fact, the center stack panel was inspired by similar panels found on certain Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

We'll stop quoting the press release here and tell you that the week-long test of this truck was one long giggle. More fun than I usually have with cars and that's saying something. This one was a loaded 2-wheel drive model...$13,000 worth of options (pretty much everything available) running the final total up to a whopping $50,035.

Now remember, this is an '08. The all-new '09 F-150s are arriving at dealerships as you read this. The limited run of '08 Harley-Davidson editions should have been in happy owners' garages months ago. But you know what happened to truck sales. A quick search online as this is written shows a few examples languishing on dealer lots with price tags as much as $10,000 cheaper than MSRP. Now's your chance.

Kia Rondo EX Review

Three rows of seats. It's virtually a condition of purchase for SUV buyers these days...prompting a lot of manufacturers to shoehorn a third row into vehicles that really shouldn't have one.

The Kia Rondo is a small vehicle...one that makes a lot of sense in a time of uncertain gas prices and other economic issues. With a base price of $20,195 for the uplevel EX trim, an EPA estimated 18 miles per gallon city and 26 highway and five-star driver and passenger frontal crash test ratings (as well as five stars for front seat side crash and four stars for rear seat side crash and rollover), the Rondo jumps right onto the list of intelligent choices for people looking for the alternative to SUVs, crossovers and minivans.

All but for that third seat. Points go to Kia for making it an option ($500). Yes, two people can fit back there...and kids probably won't find it uncomfortable...but the seatbacks are just too close to the tailgate for my comfort.

Past that, the Rondo beats expectations at every turn. It's quicker, quieter and nicer than you'd expect from a vehicle at this size and price point. The tester had the $1,000 Leather Package, which includes heated front seats, and the $1,200 Premium Package (a power sunroof and an Infinity AM/FM/CD Changer audio system). That, the third row seat and destination charges brought the bottom line to $23,495. Leaving off the third row gets you under 23 grand. This could be a very smart move for a lot of small families.


Honda Accord LX Review

After absolutely loving the loaded V6 Honda Accord Coupe, I was wondering if there'd be some letdown in driving the 4-door, 4-cylinder LX Premium sedan.

What was I thinking?

If you've looked at the sales charts and wondered why, with a relatively economical V6 available, most Accords sold are 4-cylinders, this car answers the question. The six is fun, but the four is fine (172 horsepower is more than adequate for this car's weight)...and the mileage skyrockets!

Honda delivered the tester absolutely box stock...no options. And though at one time, LX was the top of the line (okay, I'm showing my age), it's now the base model, with LX Premium one notch above and EX and EX-L above that.

Now, "base" is a relative term here. The LX comes with air conditioning, steering wheel audio and cruise controls, anti-lock brakes a 160-watt audio system and a bunch more. LX Premium swaps the 16 inch steel wheels for alloys of the same size, adds a security system, chrome exhaust finisher, automatic front passenger and driver's windows, illuminated window switches and an 8-way power adjustment for the driver's seat...kicking the price tag up by $1,000.

Bottom line, with automatic transmission: $22,555 plus delivery. Honda's manuals are so silky smooth, you could knock $800 off the price by going with a stick and never regret it.

Oh, yes...the mileage. EPA says 21 city, 31 highway. I have a friend who bought one about three months ago. He says the EPA's being conservative.

In 11 years as a professional TireKicker, the Honda Accord is the one car I've never second-guessed as a recommendation. Take even a modicum of care of it and it'll run for 200,000 miles. And you'll have a very well-equipped family sedan with good power and great mileage for the low 20's. You can't go wrong.


Toyota Yaris Sedan Review

On the day the Toyota Yaris sedan was scheduled for delivery, I braced my self for an adventure in minicar-land. My last seat time in a Yaris was in the three-door hatchback (which resembles a rollerskate), and that's about the only Yari found roaming the streets in my neighborhood.

But when the four-door Yaris arrived it was a revelation: This is what we used to call a Corolla.

We probably won't see much more of it, but we've been living with "mission creep" for the last decade or more. Car manufacturers keep taking the cars up the ladder of size and luxury until humble Camrys are the size of Avalons, Corollas become what Camrys were and Yari (at least the 4-door sedan variety) take the place of the Corolla.

Which means the Avalon is probably somewhere between an E-Class and an S-Class these days.

Point is, the 4-door Yaris is actually a quite good conventional compact sedan. There's no sense of cutting-edge this or outside the box that (apart from that center-mounted speedometer, which mainly keeps costs low in building both left-hand and right-hand drive models).

Four people fit comfortably, it moves well and is reasonably quiet (considerably quieter than the more expensive Matrix). $13,765 gets you a 1.5 liter 4 cylinder engine, with a four-speed automatic transmission (five-speed manuals are available for less money), air conditioning, an "audio prep package" and the usual basics.

The test vehicle added $1500 to that for the Power Package (power door locks, power windows, power outside mirrors, a fold-down 60/40 rear seat, an AM/FM/CD/mp3 player with iPod jack, curise control, nicer interior trim, a rear window defroster and an upgrade to 15 inch wheels (14s are standard) with full wheel covers.

$150 worth of floor mats and cargo mats, $359 for a security system, $230 for remote keyless entry and $720 for delivery and the bottom line is:



Now the problem here is that for that money, you could probably step up to the Corolla or a Honda Civic. So why buy the Yaris?

Two reasons. One: Fuel economy (the EPA says 29 city, 35 highway). Two: Ratchet back the options list (blow your kids' minds by showing them manual window cranks) and you can get a basic but decently-equipped Yaris for $14,000 or so.

Truth is, there's a lot of competition at this price point and the Yaris is far from the hands-down winner. But if you're excluding it because you think it's too small, you should definitely test-drive the four-door.